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The Norman Conquests

Possibly the best summation of the tortured depths beneath the comical surface of Alan Ayckbourn’s work came from a theatregoer: “I wouldn’t have started laughing if I’d known what I was laughing about.” The same could be said of Peter Kavanagh’s bittersweet new radio production featuring a sharply-drilled cast moving with sinuous ease between wit and pain.

Depicting the fallout when three siblings, two spouses and a putative boyfriend spend a weekend together, the dramas can be played in any order as the action famously leaps between each. Table Manners is conventionally presented first, including in the lauded 2008 Old Vic production in which the theatre was reconfigured to emulate the in-the-round experience of its 1973 Scarborough premiere.

Kavanagh, however, chooses to begin with Living Together which casts Norman’s libidinous rampage in a new light. Played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, he is more needy depressive than sex god, whose marriage to early feminist Ruth (a steely, scathing Tracy-Ann Oberman) is revealed as a constantly shifting power battle.

Jeff Rawle as her brother Reg conveys a truly affecting melancholy beneath blustery cheeriness, while Clare Lawrence-Moody’s shrill nag is later poignantly redrawn as a put-upon housewife. The youngest sister Annie is the most sympathetically drawn of the women, with Helen Baxendale adding muscle and sincerity to the mousey persona with Nigel Planer as the nasal-voiced butt of all jokes.

Norman’s fumbling conquests, on a brown nylon rug, seem hardly sinful as relationships are cruelly eviscerated with a truly barbed humour.

Dates: March 14, 21, 28, 2.30pm

 

Verdict
Adapted for radio with a shining clarity of vision, Ayckbourn’s trilogy exposes a domestic bonfire of vanities
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